Thursday, December 10, 2009

Good News For Dundas Streetscape?

For once downtown London has some semi-positive heritage news. Two side-by-side historic gems that came close to a date with the wrecker's ball have been returned to their former glory - sort of. At least the exteriors of the Capitol Theatre and the Bowles Building have made a comeback. And rare as it is for either a developer or City Hall to be interested in heritage preservation, the $4 million bill has actually been paid by Shmuel Farhi and the City of London. In 2010, the buildings will house London's planning department, in theory a great example of adaptive reuse that will bring white-collar workers to the heart of downtown. Well that's a good idea - city staff should be confonted with the near-emptyness of Dundas Street on a daily basis. Maybe they'll feel the urge to do something about our wasteland main street.

Unfortunately, it's not the entire Capitol Theatre that's being preserved, just its front. In 2008 an architect determined the facade was worth saving for its ornate stonework. The old theatre itself, including its mirrored lobby, had already been demolished to make way for yet another rear-of-Dundas parking lot in 2006.

So we have an example of what's been called "facadism" - demolishing a building but leaving its facade. London has jumped on the facadism bandwagon in recent years - witness the Delta London Armouries and the old Talbot streetscape clinging to the JLC. This practice may be seen as a new compromise between property developers and preservationists - but the so-called preservation is only superficial and the buildings only mock-historic. The Armouries and the Talbot bricks now have a "stuck-on" effect, since taller buildings have been constructed behind them without any setback. And the contrast between the modern and Victorian styles is so great that the effect belittles the new architecture as well as the old.

Some world cities, like Paris and Melbourne, have actively discouraged facadism. I know, I know, Paris this isn't. But if the Capitol/Bowles preservation is the way the wagon's going, it might be better for London to jump off.
Update - September 2012: As it turned out, not even the original facade was preserved. What we see now is a completely new front made to look like the original. The facade was deemed to be past the point where it could be saved. Latest news is that London's planning department will be returning to City Hall and another city department will be moving into the Bowles Building. Maybe Dundas Street scared them.  

Friday, November 27, 2009

Save the Red "Antiquities" Building

Are Londoners willing to finally put their money where their mouths are when it comes to heritage preservation? Heritage London Foundation hopes so - they're trying to raise $110,000 to buy the red frame building known as the "Antiquities Shoppe" by the end of the year. The all-wood 1872 building at Wellington and Hill streets in "SoHo" is in danger of demolition if the money can't be raised to complete the purchase by December 31. The current owner says he'd like to save the structure - one of London's oldest frame buildings - but can no longer afford to repair it. The total price to buy and fix up the landmark is $238,000 - a major undertaking Heritage London hopes will come from London citizens and companies.

The problem is, London and Londoners don't have a great track record when it comes to preserving their heritage landmarks - witness the demise of the Brunswick Tavern, Locust Mount, the Sir Adam Beck house, the Talbot block, etc. Although I'd like to remain optimistic, I suspect Londoners will prove either too miserly or just too darn apathetic to contribute their loonies to saving the building, even during this "giving" time of year. Especially people in certain neighbourhoods (I don't want to pick on any places but I'm thinking of one starting with "M") who probably aren't too sure where downtown London is ... Anyway, kudos to Heritage London for making this major effort to preserve a piece of London's past.